OPERATION JUST CAUSE --  ARTICLES - Gray and Manwaring             [p1 of 2]  


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-- Panama Canal Treaty Implementation (1979-1999)

ă Operation Just Cause (Dec 20, 1989 - Jan 12, 1990)

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Operation Just Cause




Situation that Precipitated Just Cause

Unlike other cases included in this comparative study, the intervention in Panama was not a peacekeeping operation. It was a unilateral U.S. intervention in a country where U.S. presence and influence were overwhelming and cultural, social, and economic ties to the United States were inextricable. The lessons that emerged from this operation (as well as from the Somalia action) were to significantly influence the planning of the operation in Haiti.

Operation Just Cause was the culmination of a 2?-year effort to remove General Manual Noriega, Commander of the Panama Defense Force (PDF) and de-facto ruler, from power after his indictment in the United States on drug-trafficking charges. U.S. efforts to negotiate Noriega out of power had failed by May 1988. Ongoing economic sanctions only hurt the country and were difficult to enforce (in view of the large U.S. presence). As the crisis progressed, the U.S. military presence steadily increased, as did efforts to pressure the PDF through no-notice exercises and testing of check points. Although a political opposition was slowly coalescing, two coup attempts by the PDF and massive public demonstrations failed to unseat Noriega.


Authors’ note: This case study is based upon personal experiences of the authors, interviews with numerous other participants, from both the Washington level and the field, as well as from written accounts. Opinions and accounts vary, a classic case of “where you stand depends upon where you sit.”


Events precipitating the U.S. intervention in 1989 included:

  A “school bus incident” of March 3 involving the children of U.S. personnel; several low-key PDF incursions onto U.S. installations including the Arraijan fuel tank farm, and periodic shooting incidents at the Jungle Operations Training Center (JOTC)

  Nullification of the May 1989 election of President Guellermo Endara, and Vice Presidents Arias Calderon and Billy Ford

  The subsequent highly publicized beating of Vice President-elect Ford

  A virtual declaration of war against the United States by Noriega on December 15

  The brutalizing of a U.S. Navy lieutenant and threats and assaults on his wife, and the killing of Marine Lieutenant Robert Paz on December 16, 1989.1

Capacity for Self-Governance

At the time of the intervention, Panama was a self-governing country with functioning bureaucracy, police, judicial, and prison systems. Although it had the trappings of a constitutional democracy until the May 1989 election results were nullified, it was a de facto dictatorship under the control of General Noriega and his PDF. All semblance of democracy disappeared after Noreiga nullified the results of the elections and appointed a President. Despite various economic, political, and social disruptions, including U.S. economic sanctions, Panamanian government institutions continued to function.

Strength of Armed Opposition Groups. The PDF maintained close control throughout the country. The large-scale public opposition or “civil crusade” mounted many demonstrations in Panama City but had no armed capability (see discussion of PDF capabilities for insurgency below).

Condition of Economy and Infrastructure. To keep his government afloat, Noriega exacerbated Panama’s already serious financial problems and plunged the country deeper into debt. At the time of the invasion, total government debt was approximately $5 billion; the unemployment rate was about 25 percent; the nation had lost over 2 years of foreign and domestic investment; the international banking sector had suffered severe damage; the number of merchant vessels registered in Panama had declined; and hundreds of businesses had been forced into bankruptcy. Systematic looting of the economy by Noriega and his cronies exacerbated the situation. By 1989, the central government finances had dropped almost by half over the previous 2 years to $598 million.2

Extent of Social Disruption. Because of devastation to Panama’s economy and U.S. attempts to split the Panamanian public and PDF from Noriega, long-existing class and racial divisions were exacerbated. Traditional norms of political behavior, which had made Panama a relatively nonviolent society, were attenuated. This was manifested in Noriega’s creation of “dignity battalions” and the brutality they inflicted. The prolonged crisis created an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and hatred that could require many years to repair.3

Status of Domestic and Public Security Apparatus

PDF Capabilities. Panama’s institutions were either tools of the Noriega dictatorship, or they were neglected and dysfunctional. In the decades prior to the U.S. invasion of December 1989, the Panamanian National Guard and its successor, the PDF, had become the main vehicle for power and repression in Panama. The PDF was an amalgamation of the National Guard, the Air Force, the Naval Force, the Canal Defense Force, the Police Force, the Traffic Department, the Department of Investigation, and the Immigration Department.4 In addition to having the capability to control the populace, the PDF was also able to conduct sabotage and stand-off attacks against the Canal and U.S. military installations (such as Quarry Heights, Fort Clayton, Howard Air Force Base, Albrook Air Force Base, and the U.S. Naval Station at Rodman). Confronted by a more powerful intervention force, the PDF planned to retreat into the mountains and jungles of the interior and conduct prolonged guerrilla warfare. At the time of the U.S. intervention, the PDF contained 19 companies and six platoons, numbering some 8,000 men, at least 3,500 of whom were well trained and equipped for combat. Among the major items in their inventory were 29 armored personnel carriers, 12 patrol craft, and 28 light transport aircraft.5

During 1988 and 1989, after the termination of security assistance and the imposition of sanctions by the United States, Noriega turned to Cuba, Nicaragua, and Libya for economic and military assistance. Cuba and Nicaragua funneled Communist-bloc weapons and instructors to Noriega and helped develop civilian defense committees (i.e., “Dignity Battalions”) for intelligence collection and population control. Libya contributed $20 million in 1989 in return for permission to use Panama as a base to coordinate terrorist and insurgent groups activities throughout Latin America.6

Although the PDF was occupied heavily with maintaining civil order and responding to U.S. military efforts to throw it off balance, it continued to function as a police force. By December 1989 the PDF had been on high alert for an extended period. Panama was “not a country with an army, but an army with a country.”7

The PDF as an Institution. The PDF was clearly understood to be corrupt. Many of its officers and enlisted personnel were involved in outside business activities, legal and illegal, including drug trafficking. Getting a “turn at the trough” was a method of reward and control. (The PDF itself was a “fee for service” organization. Low pay was supplemented by these rewards.) Along with a reputation for general ruthlessness, the PDF was regarded as an organization that could “get things done, when appropriately motivated,” whereas the relatively inefficient civilian bureaucracy could not. This gave Noriega a certain leverage vis-a-vis the U.S. military. The PDF was viewed by many in the lower strata of society as the organization that looked after their welfare and could provide meaningful upward social mobility. Additionally, the business community in general worked accommodations with it, and some prominent business leaders had relatives who became PDF officers.8

Condition of the Judicial and Prison Systems. The legal, judicial, and penal systems during the Noriega regime were badly corrupted. Prisoners might languish in jail for months and sometimes literally 3, 4, or 5 years without even a hearing. Jails were crowded, unsanitary, and violent. Any amenities had to be provided by the prisoner’s family or friends. The legal system dispensed political control rather than justice. The impact upon the individual depended entirely on the nature of the relationship with Noriega and the PDF.9

Planning and Resources

The “Noriega crisis” extended from June 1987, when Noriega was implicated in the murder of prominent Panamanian politician Hugo Spadafora,10 until the implementation of Just Cause in December 1989 and spanned portions of two U.S. administrations. Several key players changed with the advent of the Bush administration, as did the Chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in September 1989. Many players were also preoccupied by their involvement in the Central American conflicts and the Iran-Contra investigations, and there were different views and objectives being pursued by different agencies. Consequently, from the perspective of those in the field, the planning process had the appearance of being driven by political circumstances “inside the beltway” rather than a clear set of objectives.

Although there was early agreement (summer 1987) that Noriega had to go, there was considerable disagreement about how to depose him. Any lingering doubt about Noriega staying in power was dispelled in February 1988 when he was indicted by the U.S. Justice Department on drug trafficking charges. Any hope that the opposition-instigated “civil crusade” could get rid of Noriega was dispelled on February 25 when President Eric Arturo Delvalle attempted to publicly fire Noriega. In response, Noriega named Solis Palma as Delvalle’s successor. The “civil crusade” lacked strong U.S. support and did nothing in response to these events. The U.S. Government continued to recognize Delvalle as the President of Panama and granted him safe haven in the United States, along with a steady flow of political refugees.

In March 1988, a coup attempt gave hope that the PDF could jettison Noriega while preserving itself as an institution. Throughout the crisis there were varying degrees of pressure from some quarters for the United States to take military action. This was resisted by the U.S. Department of Defense. Security assistance was cut off and economic sanctions imposed. A variety of other schemes for ousting Noriega were also examined by the U.S. interagency process. Discussions with exile groups in 1988 and 1989, designed to give the opposition encouragement, probably detracted from a focused U.S. policy, since this raised unrealistic expectations that Noriega could be removed without direct U.S. intervention. In addition, the U.S. Presidential election campaign was at least partly responsible for the apparent void in policy action during the summer and fall 1988.

During 1987-88, the Reagan administration’s Panama policy was also hampered by persistent press leaks. The Bush administration handled this problem after January 1989 by placing interagency access to Panama policy matters on a highly restricted basis. While options continued to be examined and economic sanctions remained in place, one objective remained constant: to split Noriega from the PDF. The administration continued to hope that he could be removed without direct U.S. action. This effort intensified significantly in 1989. The U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) forces began aggressively exercising treaty rights of free passage through Panama by such actions as ignoring road blocks, conducting short-notice “Category Three” exercises and keeping maximum pressure on the PDF, while at the same time complying with the Panama Canal Treaties in order to maintain the legal high ground. U.S. security forces in Panama were steadily increased, the number of personnel living off base was reduced, and dependents were encouraged to return to the United States.

Contingency planning for military intervention began with a Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Planning Order dated February 28, 1988. Known initially as Elaborate Maze, it included four major components which could be implemented concurrently or in sequence:

  Buildup of U.S. combat forces

  Noncombat evacuation operations

  Combat operations

  Restoration of the Panamanian Government and state services in wake of combat operations against the PDF.11

In response to the planning order during the first half of 1988, General Fred F. Woerner, Jr., U.S. Commander-in-Chief, Southern Command (USCINCSO) forwarded his plan (code named Fissures) to the Joint Chiefs. After receiving no response, Woerner updated Fissures on his own initiative, calling it Fissures II. The update called for coordinated interagency political-military efforts to split Noriega from the PDF rank and file and the civilian leadership of the regime, resulting in an internal resolution of the Noriega problem. At the time Woerner forwarded Fissures II, he stated it was an integrated, holistic plan that could not be executed piecemeal.

General Woerner was subsequently instructed to execute the plan in individual pieces.12 Accordingly, Elaborate Maze/Fissures was changed to a family of plans later called Prayerbook. Blue Spoon became the plan for combat operations, and Krystal Ball, completed in August 1988, became the plan to provide public security and to restore civilian government in the event combat operations became necessary. Woerner had been told by the President that he did not want to intervene in Panama directly. Combat and postcombat planning was thus considered more an exercise, directed by prudence rather than an immediate requirement. Thus Krystal Ball was never discussed with the State Department. The individual plans comprising Prayerbook were subsequently put “back on the shelf.”13

On March 3, 1989, Prayerbook came off the shelf. The incident that precipitated this action was the so-called “school bus crisis.” On that date, the PDF seized 21 U.S. school buses with children of U.S. military and civilian personnel aboard. U.S. Military Police reacted strongly and the incident was defused within a few hours. However, the incident had a profound effect on the resident U.S. community. A “siege mentality” set in, and calls and letters flooded into U.S. congressional offices asking that something be done to get rid of the oppressive, and now threatening, Noriega regime.14 Krystal Ball, the civil-military operations part of Prayerbook, was renamed Blind Logic and sent forward to JCS with no recommendations for change.15

On May 10, 1989, Blue Spoon, the plan for combat operations, became a more serious proposition. The incident that precipitated this was the specter of vice-presidential candidate Ford being brutally beaten by Noriega hoodlums on live TV after the Panamanian elections of May 7. The outcome had gone against Noriega, and he had the results nullified. The image of Ford being beaten and bloodied caused revulsion against Noriega not only in Panama but throughout the world.16

As part of Blue Spoon, a Joint Task Force (JTF) under the XVIII Airborne Corps was established. SOUTHCOM planners assumed that XVIII Airborne Corps would operate in parallel with them and incorporate Blind Logic, the civil affairs/public security plan, into their operations planning. However, the XVIII Airborne Corps JTF did not consider that there were any taskings for them in Blind Logic and did not perceive Blind Logic as an approved plan.17 In fact, Blind Logic had never been approved by the Joint Chiefs.

The Mission

Execution of Just Cause

By the time General Powell assumed Chairmanship of the JCS and General Maxwell Thurman assumed command of SOUTHCOM at the end of September 1989, a great deal of planning had already been done. On the basis of this planning, President Bush set four objectives for Just Cause on the eve of the invasion:

   Protect American lives

   Ensure implementation of the Panama Canal Treaties

   Bring Noriega to justice

   Restore Panamanian democracy.18

The maintenance of public security was a secondary consideration for the overall military operation. To accomplish the President’s objectives, however, it would need to be an integral part of restoring democracy. In fact, maintaining public security became a key concern much earlier than anticipated as a result of widespread looting shortly after the intervention took place.

A sense of urgency came about on October 3, 1989. A coup attempt instigated by PDF Major Moises Giroldi failed, and Giroldi was summarily executed. Ironically, the strategy of trying to separate Noriega from the PDF had worked, but the tactic failed. The United States did not support the coup attempt, and Noriega arrested opposition elements within the PDF. It then became obvious that U.S. military intervention would be required, probably in response to some “threshold event,” and revising Blue Spoon began in earnest under General Thurman. This took place on two levels—at SOUTHCOM and at the Joint Task Force (JTF)-South component of the XVIII Airborne Corps.19 The new version of Blue Spoon was published at the end of October 1989. Important changes included streamlining command and control by putting all executing elements under JTF-South; shifting combat focus from the center of Panama City to outlying areas which left the U.S. troop presence in the city at a minimum; ignoring the possibility of a public security vacuum and; and placing responsibility for restoration of Panamanian Government functions on U.S. Army South (USARSO) (Major General Cisneros). This latter provision, however, was not properly coordinated.20

Leading up to Just Cause, the SOUTHCOM J-5, BG Benard Gann, repeatedly tried to present Blind Logic to General Thurman; however Thurman’s total focus was on planning for hostilities, not posthostilities.21

On December 16, 1989, Lt. Paz was killed, and on 17 December President Bush gave the order to execute Blue Spoon as Operation Just Cause. On the evening of December 19, President Endara and his two vice presidents were sworn into office, and early on December 20, U.S. combat operations against the PDF were in full swing.

Although military police were deployed with the 82nd Airborne Division at the outset, planners for Blue Spoon/Just Cause had failed to foresee the collapse of the PDF and the resultant need for public security operations.22 The consequence was seen in looting that took place mostly in Panama City and Colon23 where the destruction of the PDF left no local police force.24 The intervention did leave the interior of the country largely unscathed, and the PDF continued to operate there and maintain law and order.25 In the cities, rules of engagement in force for U.S. military personnel were adequate to avoid a possible bloodbath, but U.S. forces would not shoot looters.

Within the first 2 days of combat operations, looting broke out in the center of Panama City and continued for the next three to four days.26 As a result of the urgent need to restore order and resume basic government services, Blind Logic, the civil-military operations plan, underwent a crash update, was approved by General Thurman and sent to JCS for approval as Operation Promote Liberty.27

On December 20, Thurman directed BG Gann to move his entire organization to the Panamanian Legislative Assembly building and assist the new Endara government (which consisted of Endara and his two Vice Presidents). The next day Promote Liberty was approved by the JCS, and Gann became COMCMOTF (Commander, Civil-Military Operations Task Force) and began to execute the plan for restoration of civil government and public security to Panama. As COMCMOTF, Gann was placed by Thurman under the operational control of the U.S. Charge d’Affairs, John Bushnell.28 General Thurman also ordered that COMCMOTF personnel be combined with the active duty 96th Civil Affairs (CA) Battalion, expected to arrive on December 22, and 300 reservists who would follow over the next 3 weeks.29 Because of a misunderstanding of the role that CA personnel were to play, there was initially some resistance within the interagency to this deployment. Some believed that CA personnel would be viewed as “political commissars” directing the Government of Panama instead of facilitating the restoration of essential services.30

The looting and chaos were ended when sufficient U.S. infantry and MP forces were brought into the situation to discharge the public security function without excessive use of force. From December 20-25, COMCMOTF worked nonstop to establish security, restore services, assist in the organization of the new government, and coordinate activities of U.S. Government and nongovernment agencies.

Implementation of Promote Liberty

The first phase of Promote Liberty concentrated on public safety, health, and population control measures. Later, the U.S. country team and the new Panamanian Government took responsibility for civil control, rebuilding commerce, winning the support of the people for reforms, and restructuring the PDF into separate police, customs, and defense organizations.31

Restoration of civil government and public order did not get off to a good start. The PDF had been destroyed, and there was no Panamanian entity to replace it. Neither Washington nor JTF-South had contemplated the disappearance of the PDF, counting instead upon a coup by the PDF. Nor was the public chaos problem planned for; no military consultations or coordination had taken place with appropriate U.S. civilian agencies in this regard.32 Furthermore, Blind Logic planners did not address what kind of security force would replace the PDF, since it was predicated upon the assumption of a PDF coup ousting Noriega.33 In consultation with U.S. authorities, the Government of Panama (GOP) had determined that a standing army was unnecessary. Lacking other options, the GOP decided to replace it with a police force made up of members of the defunct PDF, after screening out undesirables.34

There were several factors that contributed to this lack of focus on civil affairs. Among these were disagreement between the Operations (J-3) and Policy (J-5) SOUTHCOM; lack of an ambassador on scene (Ambassador Dean Hinton arrived a couple of weeks later); lack of interagency focus on this issue; and no political adviser on station at SOUTHCOM. Nevertheless, General Thurman took full responsibility for this oversight and in subsequent years cited it as the greatest mistake in his military career.35

As of December 22, four Brigade Task Forces from the 82nd Airborne had been assigned to clear Panama City of hostiles (i.e., Dignity Battalions), enforce a curfew, stop chaos and looting, and assume temporary law enforcement functions. The 82nd Airborne and 193rd Infantry Brigade elements in Panama City were reinforced by additional MP companies. As the former cleared designated zones, the MPs would take over, man the old PDF posts, and undertake active patrols. The presence of the MPs and withdrawal of combat forces had a calming effect upon the population, law and order was restored, and relatively normal activity resumed.36

It was not until mid-January 1990 that General Thurman brought command and control of all SOUTHCOM and JTF-SOUTH organizations involved with the civil-military operation under the overall control of Military Support Group—Panama (MSG). At this point the public security mission was being performed on a more routine basis.37

To get the United States out of an apparent “occupation” role, three conditions had to be met. First, the Panamanian Government had to place enough police on the streets to undertake joint patrols with U.S. forces. This required a quick, ad hoc reconstitution of the old PDF into a new Panamanian National Police (PNP). Second, some sort of court/magistrate/judicial system had to be re-established (e.g., the old night-court system). Finally, the penal system had to be reopened. This required a massive reconstruction of old jails and prisons after the looting and destruction in the aftermath of Just Cause. This process took several weeks.38

Once the decision had been made by General Thurman to implement Promote Liberty, Major General Marc Cisneros, Commander ARSO, set up a U.S. Force Liaison Group (USFLG) to advise, train, and equip the new police.39 A Military Support Group (MSG) became operational on January 17, 1990 and was given the mission of police training. Initially this was conducted by the 18th Airborne Corps’ 16th Military Police Brigade.40 A Judicial Liaison Group (JLG) was also established to advise/assist the Panamanians. This was an ad hoc military response on the ground to an unanticipated situation.

The initiatives instigated by MG Cisneros using ARSO resources got the PNP on the streets, the night-court system operating, and the jails and prisons functioning.41 Situations not foreseen in Blind Logic or not provided for in guidance from Washington were dealt with ad hoc.42 The establishment of the MSG was the logical extension of Blind Logic and the ad hoc effort to institutionalize civil-military operations in Panama prior to the official end of hostilities on January 31, 1990.

Problems arose for the MSG, however, with congressional passage of the “Urgent Assistance Act for Panama of 1990” on February 14. In addition to providing a much needed $43.7M in emergency assistance, it reaffirmed the prohibition on police training by the U.S. military contained in Section 660 of the Foreign Assistance Act. The Act did, however, permit use of residual security assistance funds to equip the police force. Negotiations with Congress during January and early February for this legislation were unsuccessful in producing a change in the Section 660 prohibition on police training, in part because the Administration did not foresee the importance of such a change, and in part because the need was not apparent to Congress. However, they did provide authority and limited funding for the Justice Department International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP) to train Panamanian police. In addressing the immediate security problem, however, DOD found itself conducting at least what appeared to be police training in violation of the law and took immediate steps to remedy the situation.


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William H. Ormsbee, Jr.  2006



CHAPTER 2 of: Policing the new world disorder : peace operations and public security, edited by Robert B. Oakley, Michael J. Dziedzic, Eliot M. Goldberg, published by NDU Press (National Defense University)



DR. ANTHONY WHITFORD GRAY, JR., has served on the faculty of the Military Strategy and Logistics Department of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces since 1993. Dr. Gray is a retired naval officer with extensive experience in inter-American affairs. From 1983 to 1993 he served as Deputy Director of Inter-American Affairs and subsequently as Director of Humanitarian Assistance and Refugee Affairs in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. He received his doctorate in International Relations from the American University in 1982. His publications include “The Evolution of U.S. Naval Policy in Latin America” (doctoral dissertation, 1982), “Latin American Military Institutions” (Hoover Institute, 1986-contributing author), and The Big L: American Logistics in World War II (National Defense University Press, 1997, contributing author).


DR. MAXWELL G. MANWARING is a retired U.S. Army Colonel and is currently a political-military affairs consultant based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He has served in various positions, including the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Southern Command’s Small Wars Operations Research Directorate, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Southern Command’s Directorate for Plans, Policy, and Politico-Military Affairs. Dr. Manwaring is the author of several articles on political-military affairs and is co-editor of the prize-winning El Salvador at War: An Oral History (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1989) and Managing Contemporary Conflict: Pillars of Success (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997).